The unexpected musical roots of Nina Simone

“On a warm September evening in 1959, a young African American pianist and contralto dazzled a packed crowd at the Town Hall in New York City with her improvised versions of jazz ballads, folk songs, spirituals, pop tunes Broadway musicals and piano riffs with a Bach motif. Her recordings earlier that summer had take the industry’s breath away with her riveting performance of ‘I Loves You, Porgy’ from the Broadway musical ‘Porgy and Bess’….

“The 26-year-old woman’s repertoire defied categories. It signaled the arrival of a modern diva and an innovator on the piano, not simply a jazz crooner….

“As always , she introduced herself with a conjured show-name: Nina Simone. When she launched into a haunting version of the traditional ballad ‘Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair,’ no one in the hall knew that she had first learned this appropriated ‘mountain ballad’ in her native Southern Appalachian town of Tryon, North Carolina.”

— From “The United States of Appalachia: How Southern Mountaineers Brought Independence, Culture, and Enlightenment to America” by  Jeff Biggers (2007)

Her Town Hall performance came two years before Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) made a far less satisfactory visit to Chapel Hill.

Dept. of Coincidences: Tryon, the hamlet where Simone was born in 1933, is where DuBose Heyward, author of the seminal novel “Porgy,”  died in 1940.


‘Porgy and Bess’: The Hendersonville connection

“In Hendersonville, North Carolina, [George Gershwin] visited with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward — authors respectively of the book and the play ‘Porgy’ on which the opera is based  — for another round of Southern acculturation.  Gershwin… had already spent the better part of the summer of 1934 steeping himself in the music and life of the venerable Gullah community on the Sea Islands off the coast of Charleston  — the exact setting of the Heywards’ ‘Porgy.’ [DuBose] Heyward described the Hendersonville encounter:

” ‘We were about to enter a dilapidated cabin that had been taken as a meeting house by…  Negro Holy Rollers, [when] George caught my arm and held me. The sound that had arrested him was one to which….through long familiarity I attached no special importance. But now… I began to catch its extraordinary quality. It consisted of perhaps a dozen voices raised in loud rhythmic prayer. … While each had started a different tune, upon a different theme, [the whole] produced an effect almost terrifying in its primitive intensity. Inspired…. George wrote six simultaneous prayers [for ‘Porgy and Bess’] producing a terrifying invocation to God in the face of the hurricane.’ ”

— From “Dvorak to Duke Ellington: A Conductor Explores America’s Music and its African American Roots” by Maurice Peress (2004)